Sex work, sex slavery, and the minefield in between.
Todays guest blogger is someone who, when they speak, you can’t help but stop every thought in your head and just listen. I had the honor of sharing the stage with this person once and I can honestly say it was a breath of fresh air to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone was not afraid to say what the think.
These are her words…..
Sex work, sex slavery, and the minefield in between.
The conversation had gone from formal introductions to stories of our sexual exploitation before our brunch had even arrived.
We were two open books, eager to read each other’s darkest pages to see what we could learn about ourselves. It’s not often you get to meet other survivors of child prostitution in hipster vegan cafes as art students serve you whole leaf tea in cafetières. I never imagined myself to be here having this conversation, living the gentrified life I do now. it still feels a bit of a miracle.
I always struggled to feel truly connected to the acquaintances I’ve made since moving to the city. After clawing my way free from a disadvantaged background, I managed to put myself through university, I gained an art degree, and I started paying attention to politics and activism (once I was old enough to vote). I discovered I was intelligent, articulate, and most importantly that I could cultivate my tastes enough to chameleon into middle-class spaces. Despite this, I never felt on par with the rest of the students and millennials around me. I knew our lives had been vastly different and I desperately craved the company of women who understood the level of adversity I’d faced and the trauma I had seen. Sitting around in liberal ‘safe spaces’ having intellectual conversations about feminism and the politics of sex work felt worlds away from my own truth. This brunch conversation was about to bring those worlds together.
Like most of my generation, I developed my feminism over the internet. I started out in survivors forums and chat rooms where women from all over the world offered each other support after sexual violence. Two conversations, in particular, have stuck with me. The first was:
“My rapist offered to pay me £15,000 to drop the court case and I’m really poor and need the money, but if I accept it I’d feel like a prostitute!”
The second was a conversation I started in a chat room about the horror of being made to sell sex on the streets. Rather than offering me emotional support, the conversation quickly turned into all the women, including the chat moderators, asking me for advice on how to get into it, where to go, how much to charge, what to wear, and what precautions to take. I remember logging out in disgust, I was not going to be part of their self-destruction; It was clear those women could not give me what I needed.
A few years later I found myself following blogs and Facebook pages, reading articles from websites like HuffPost and Everyday Feminism. Friends shared ‘woke’ opinion pieces on social media that overused words like ‘valid’, ‘toxic’ and ‘inherently problematic’. Amongst it all I found a new world to explore that had an accessible pseudo-academic allure to it. People weren’t afraid to take on challenging topics and social justice was everyone’s raison d’être. I could fit in there, and it seemed like a place where I could be real about my past.
I learned that to be an empowered feminist I had to be sex-positive and to be sex-positive I had to be ‘sex work’ positive because it’s the demonisation of women’s sexual freedoms that causes the rape, trafficking, and oppression of women and girls. I discovered all this whilst still processing my own trauma and I began to adopt the words others were using. It wasn’t long before I was calling myself a ‘former sex worker’ and speaking candidly about how it used to be my ‘job’ to ‘sleep with’ men. As a former sex worker, I was powerful, independent, and brave for my choices. I was a 21st-century woman; a pioneer of the liberal rebellion, all because I wasn’t ashamed that I had fucked men for cash.
Back when I was being pimped out as a teenager I just thought of myself as a hooker. I didn’t understand coercion or exploitation and I certainly didn’t have the words to describe it. It was easier to believe I had some sort of choice and control over my situation than accept the full extent of my powerlessness and the danger I was in. I was in denial and that denial protected me from my trauma. That denial could have kept me there until I died. Incredibly, I got out.
I know now that the reality of my experience is better described as sexual slavery, but why be a former sex slave when you can be a former sex worker and receive reverence from members of your community for it? After all, ‘all labour is exploitation under capitalism’ and if you’re sex positive then it’s no different from using your body as a professional athlete or a manual labourer (so the argument goes). As an S.J.W, the very concept of ‘sex work’ needed my protection and If I didn’t lend my voice to its cause I was endangering women.
However, in calling myself a sex worker I was denying the power imbalances that were at play in my life at the time. It erased the force my pimp had used, it erased the age I was when I ‘started out’ and the damage it had caused to my mind and body. It couldn’t account for the sexism and misogyny that kept me trapped there or the sexual abuse I had suffered in early childhood that taught me my body was a commodity to be sold for men’s pleasure. It disregarded the traumatic re-enactment I was performing day after day. Eventually, I realised that I couldn’t assimilate these facts with the concept of sex work in relation to my experiences. It caused too much conflict inside me. I gave up on the term and went back to using the gritty, derogatory identity of ‘teenaged prostitute’.
My language has evolved a lot further since then. I’ve learned terms like child sexual exploitation. I now consider prostitution to be an act someone is subjected to, not a noun or status one should be labeled with. ‘Sex work’ as a term is promoted to legitimise it as a career and avoid the shameful connotations attached to the P word. Those connotations are the reason why I choose to use the word prostitution. We should not be attempting to sanitise the exploitation of vulnerable, desperate women. We are not talking about glamorous, rich London escorts here; we’re talking about poverty, desperation, trauma, addiction, trafficking, and abuse. That’s the prostitution I recognise.
As I sat eating brunch with the other young sexual exploitation survivor, I learned her views on prostitution were very different from my own. She explained how ‘sex work’ had pulled her out of poverty and how even though it had started for her in childhood, she had liked working for herself and felt that turning tricks on the street empowered her to be an independent woman. She didn’t understand how anyone could see it as oppressive when it was a choice she was freely making and had served her so well.
I could see how when you have no money, no qualifications, past trauma, a criminal record, no family or safety net, and no other options, prostitution could seem like a foot on the ladder. Without sex work, she wouldn’t have the car, the clothes, the freedom, or life she now enjoyed. For her, sex work was the way out of the most immediate oppression she recognised – poverty. I understood, but I asked her to consider that it wasn’t sexism and patriarchy she was empowering herself against, but capitalism and classism – two different enemies from the same pod. She contemplated hard for a moment, then agreed. She told me she had never really thought about it like that before.
It was my first time thinking of it like that also.
Galvanised, I went on to proclaim that we shouldn’t HAVE to sell sex to be able to afford food, clothes, or basic necessities. Women shouldn’t be thankful for the opportunity to be sex workers, we should be angry that we might ever need to do it in the first place. That it may appear to empower us out of poverty but I can’t see how it empowers us sexually, emotionally, or socially as women and as human beings. No matter how I tried to look at it, prostitution had only ever degraded and diminished me. It was at best a necessary evil.
I had surprised myself by my revelation. I was about to stand on the rustic breakfast bench and kick over my avocado on sourdough toast.
The questions and revelations continued to rush into my mind. If all work is exploitation under capitalism then isn’t all sex work exploitation under patriarchy? For poor women in particular, I could argue especially so. Being ‘sex-positive’ is a privilege. I’d rather be sex-critical, and I won’t be letting any oppressive power structures use semantics to convince me that sucking off cheesy dicks was empowering!
How low is the bar if women think having the ‘choice’ to be a prostitute is the way out of sexism?
This is where I am at with it right now. I’m still forming my opinions as I learn new things and process it all.
Where is the line between ‘sex for donations’ and compensated rape? What should the law be? And who am I disappointing by picking one side or the other?
With sexism still so rife, do we all not have a responsibility to fight the idea that women’s bodies are commodities? I can’t help but feel that supporters of a sex industry, whilst free to do what they do, are letting the side down.
there are wider social and ideological consequences to such choices that must be acknowledged. I understand livings have to be made; I don’t think a consensual exchange should be criminalised, however, I do wish that the happy hookers, the ethical porn stars, the playboy bunnies, the promoters, the customers, and all their allies would hold up their hands and admit that to actively support or partake in the glorification of this industry they are upholding sexism whether they intend to or not, and in doing so, they are shirking their responsibility to women-kind.